Above - the first images of the landing of the OSIRIS-REx sample returning capsule containing rock and dust from asteroid Bennu at the Department of Defense's Utah Test and Training Range (Credit: NASA, OSIRIS-REx Project)
On Sunday morning, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely returned a capsule containing the 4.5 billion-year-old asteroid Bennu in Utah. This sample will be heading to Houston, according to NASA. According to NASA:
At 12:37 a.m. EDT (10:37 a.m. MDT), a helicopter gently placed NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample capsule, attached to the end of a 100-foot cable, on the ground outside a hangar on the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range. Two technicians on the ground helped guide the capsule down.
Once the helicopter line was detached and the helicopter had departed, the clean room team removed the capsule from its metal transport cradle. They loaded the capsule onto a cart and wheeled it into the hangar where a temporary clean room had been set up. In the hangar, the capsule was fully unwrapped and cleaned, and then taken into the clean room for disassembly.
To protect the clean room from contaminants, only six people are allowed inside. Covered from head to toe in bunny suits, hoods, nitrile gloves, shoe covers, plus hair and beard covers, their job is to disassemble the capsule and remove the unopened sample canister inside. They will package all the parts for transport by aircraft to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Monday morning.
The OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification and Security – Regolith Explorer) project launched in September of 2016, putting a spacecraft on the asteroid Bennu to collect rocks and dust from the surface. The goal of the mission is to "investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth" according to NASA.
Captured on Oct. 20, 2020, during the OSIRIS-REx mission’s Touch-And-Go (TAG) sample collection event, this series of images shows the SamCam imager’s field of view as the NASA spacecraft approaches and touches down on asteroid Bennu’s surface. (credit: NASA)
The samples collected from Bennu are from October 2020. According to NASA, the spacecraft collected enough samples in two days to start the journey back to Earth. During the departure, "OSIRIS-REx imaged Bennu for 5.9 hours, covering more than a full rotation of the asteroid. It flew within 2.1 miles (3.5 kilometers) of Bennu's surface". Despite moving at 600 mph, the journey back to Earth still took OSIRIS-REx roughly 2.5 years to make!
This three-dimensional view of asteroid Bennu was created by the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA), contributed by the Canadian Space Agency, on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. (credit: NASA)
The spacecraft's next mission will take it into the orbit of the near-Earth asteroid Apophis in 2029. Apophis is about 1,200 feet in diameter and is expected to come within 20,000 miles of Earth in 2029. The asteroid is an "S-type", made up of Silica materials and is remnants of our early solar system.
OSIRIS-REx is the third of four missions in NASA's New Frontier program to explore our solar system with medium sized spacecraft. Other missions in the program include: New Horizons (exploring Pluto since 2006), Juno (exploring Jupiter since 2011) and Dragonfly (Saturn's Moon Titan, set to launch in 2026).